Writing as a Trauma-Coping Strategy
At one’s own pace
In order to be able to process trauma, it is necessary to look at the traumatic events from a certain distance. This is one of the reasons, why writing about trauma, and the emotions it has triggered, supports the healing. When we deal with conflicts by writing about our feelings, we can determine the pace at which we confront them. This self-determination is a great advantage, especially for traumatized people.
In a personal conversation, the danger of losing control is always possible. Since it was precisely such a loss of control that triggered the trauma in the first place, any situation that gives the traumatized person insufficient freedom can lead to retraumatization. As a result, the explosive mixture of fear, paralysis, helplessness, and anger, which has been brewed up as a result of the trauma, immediately floods the mind and body.
However, facing our feelings is usually very painful, even if the confrontation with the trauma can take place at our own pace. Yet, by slowing down mental processes, writing can help us, to bring order into the emotional chaos. Thence, this deceleration activates an area of the brain, that is regularly neglected in panicky, emotional short circuits: the frontal brain (the prefrontal cortex). This part of the brain makes it possible, to reflect on the situation in the first place.
“The frontal brain can dampen the activation of the amygdala [the amygdala that is responsible for the emotions as a ‘smoke detector’] as well as the pain centers, for example […] that is, it has a certain amount of control over structures that mediate emotional processes. When emotions are de-scribed […], the voluntary creation of associative links between thoughts and feelings creates a kind of initiation effect, which in the long term becomes a training effect and thus ultimately a learning effect, when repeated emotional writing takes place. In this way, the awareness, verbalization, and reflection associated with writing about one’s own feelings can increase the degree of control over one’s own emotions.“1
As every millisecond counts for the organism in life-threatening situations, the somewhat longer circuit via the prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for mental reflection, is skipped in such situations. However useful this abbreviation may be in life-threatening situations, it has a fatal effect as soon as these nerve pathways become more and more deeply imprinted through frequent use in the course of a ‘flashback‘. Therefore, any situation that is too much to handle can then seem life-threatening and lead to the impression of help- and hopelessness.
Furthermore, during a flashback, those areas of the brain, that are necessary to distinguish the past from the present are switched off. Thus, the traumatized person is emotionally thrown back into the situation of the trauma. Therefore, a flashback can trigger emotional short-circuit reactions which the traumatized person usually regrets terribly afterward. For this reason, it is important to avoid these shortcuts at all costs. Since these abbreviations should not become a habit.
New neural pathways
Thus, by slowing down thinking while writing, new connections between thinking and feeling can be explored. Subsequently, the traumatized person can gradually follow these newly created traces in everyday situations that require faster reactions and decisions. S/he can then integrate the insights, gained in explorative writing, into new attitudes and behaviors.
Furthermore, an even deeper analysis of the feelings and thoughts expressed in writing leads the writer to look at problems from different angles and place them in new contexts. This enables him/her to break out of the eternal circle of brooding. Hence, slowing down the thinking process can help the writer to trace emotionally conditioned, resentful fallacies.
“The fact that negative mood connects negative thoughts and memories, even when these thoughts and memories have nothing else to do with one another, sets us up to overthinking. When you are in a bad mood for any reason, your mood activates – literally lights up – those nodes of your brain that hold negative memories from the past and negative ways of thinking. This makes them highly accessible: it’s easier to get there with your conscious thoughts. […] It is easier to see interconnections between the bad things in your life when you are in bad mood.”2
Deconstruction of insisting convictions
Finally, conclusions revealed in a letter or in a journal can be questioned: Are these convictions still appropriate to the current situation? Is there really a connection between the negative experiences, which are linked together by the current mood? Do these links really help us to understand the current situation better?
Instead of chasing from association to association or repeating the same beliefs in different colors, like a prayer wheel, therapeutical writing allows the writer to follow his/her thoughts slowly and consistently. Hence, through this process of reflection, writing acts like a microscope with which one can zoom in on one’s emotionally charged thoughts.
By writing about our emotionally charged thoughts, we can ‘vivisect’ experiences and thus perhaps arrive at transforming insights in our self-analysis. This closer ‘listening’ to the dialogues of the inner voices creates clarity. In Patañjali’s yoga philosophy it corresponds to ‘Pratyahara‘, the inward redirection of the senses.
“By paying attention to the implicit, you understand more and more its meaning. By understanding the meaning of your sensations and feelings, you are restoring the connection between your cerebrum and the limbic system that was interrupted by the trauma. In this way, you are no longer at the mercy of your perceptions.”3
Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi advised his grandson Arun, who suffered greatly from the anger that had built up from his experiences in South Africa, to keep a ‘rage diary‘:
“‘Every time you feel this intense anger, you stop for a moment and write down who or what caused this feeling and why he or it made you so angry,’ he told me. A diary of anger is not there to let off steam and feel right – even if many people practice it that way and tend to increase their anger. […] It should help me to gain distance from myself in order to see the point of view of the other person. But that did not mean leaving the field to the other person and his or her point of view. It was a good way to find a solution that did not cause more anger and resentment.“4
Writing the trauma off the soul
When interviewing traumatized people about the ways, in which writing helps them to cope with their lives, the cathartic effect of writing was often emphasized.
A letter that we never send, a diary that we never show to anyone, can be trusted with thoughts, feelings, or actions that we could never share with anyone personally. Thus writing acts as an outlet and an easily available means of expression, as ‘the only way to get rid of the unbearable‘. Writing also helps traumatized people to better cope with flashbacks, ‘enduring the terrible images and not drowning in horror‘.
Ban of the nameless horror
Events that have once been put into words lose some of their terrifying effects: “The act of naming leads to the nameless horror losing its power and being given a name and a face that the person concerned can face. […] Man’s fear of the uncertain, the mysterious, the nameless is greater than his fear of the concrete threat.”5
The awareness and naming of emotions reduce their stress effect. But as the survey revealed, by far not all traumatized people write for the desk drawer. Above all, people who write about their trauma often do this with a sincere intention to encourage others. They write to help those, who suffered similar experiences, to free themselves from their paralysis and isolation.
In addition, by cathartic liberation from incriminating thoughts and events, the traumatized person can ‘counteract muteness‘.6 S/he can give testimony, by ‘writing, so that no one can deny what happened‘.6 This gives the writer the feeling of not to be helplessly at the mercy of others. S/he thereby recognizes his/her self-efficacy. ‘Writing [or narrating] takes away the fear of being speechless in the face of violence from others‘.6
This testimony gives the traumatized person the feeling that s/he can regain more control over his/her life. ‘Dealing with language helps to reconstitute the mental/linguistic control over the world/reality lost in the crisis‘.6 Bearing witness can also mean holding on to something or committing oneself to something, as well as expressing a new inner attitude. ‘Writing leads to a new beginning, initiates a development that cannot be reversed.’6
Ultimately, by writing traumatized people can deal more easily with emotions, since they move them into a temporal distance. ‘Writing creates so much distance that one can laugh about a problem and no longer take oneself so seriously‘6. With this gained distance, we can analyze inner processes more easily. ‘Writing with the intention of becoming self-understanding or to understand others better.’6
Quest for meaning
Through the confrontation with his/her inner states, the traumatized person can find him/herself again. The mental clarity gained through writing and the new structure of thoughts and feelings make it easier to overcome crises.
“In the course of researching the writing paradigm, it has become clear, among other things, that much more complex and diverse mechanisms are involved in the process of writing than catharsis or revelation alone could explain. In addition to physiological and immunological effects, expressive writing seems to lead to cognitive changes that ultimately help to understand, contextualize and process the event.“7
However, writing also helps oppressed minorities like the Dalits in India. Writing their autobiography, encouraged the authors, as well as the readers to come to terms with the collective trauma of their stigmatization. Likewise, for Pradnya Lokhandes, daughter of Dalit author Daya Rawar and director of the Institute of Marathi Literature in Bombay, writing is a necessity.
“‘One day I sat down to free myself from everything that moved me and it formed into poetry’. But as unconsciously as [Pradnya Lokhandes] at first met the taste of the self-proclaimed critics, so unintentionally did she at some point overstep the boundaries they had set, in subject matter, style, and choice of words. They wanted to dictate to her, what Dalit women’s longings she could articulate and what aspects of the woman-man relationship she could express herself, while at the same time prohibiting her from engaging with the subject of women beyond the caste.“8
Autobiography as political action
The Dalit writer Omprakash Valmiki wrote in the preface to his autobiographical novel ‘Joothan‘:
“I have long had the desire to write the story of my pain. […] I began to write. Once again I had to live through all the misery, the torments […]. I suffered deep mental anguish while writing this book. How terribly painful was this revelation of myself, layer by layer by layer.“9
By writing their autobiographies, Dalits such as Daya Rawar and Om Prakash Valmiki transformed a life threatened by exploitation and deprivation (‘zoé‘), into a politically meaningful existence (‘bios‘). In this way, writing becomes a liberating political act. Furthermore, it enables the writer to find his/her own voice, to claim his/her own perspective, and therefore, no longer be condemned to ‘worldlessness‘. Thus, the autobiography becomes a political act and a ‘second birth‘ – not only in the realm of language.
“Dalit writers have begun to draw their own picture of India, which sees itself as a cultural land thousands of years old and in which the teachings of Ahimsa, or nonviolence, were born.
‘This land, it demands
A cup of blood
For a sip of water
How can I call it mine
Though it gives the world
The (empty) council of peace‘.
Therefore, when cultural theorist Gayatri Spivak in her 1990 essay prominently posed the question: ‘Can the Subaltern Speak?‘ Literary critic Arun Prabha Mukherjee, answers in the preface to her translation of Omprakash Valmiki’s ‘Joothan‘:
“Perhaps another question should be asked: Can the dominant society give the subalterns space to speak?“11
Claim for literary mastery
Indeed, writing helps. As long as it does not implicate excessive literary expectations. As the claim to create a literary masterpiece arises, the therapeutic aspect of writing recedes into the background.
Moreover, some writers see literary fiction as a substitute for life. Thus, by depriving the direct experience of energy, intensity, and independent meaning, the intention to literarily process life can even become ‘parasitical’. Henceforth, the currently created literary fiction is determining any experience. It is thus perceived only in terms of poetic entanglement in order to transport experiences into language. In this way, the expression can take the place of a repressed desire for life. It can replace it, but without disguising its substituting character.
“Writing was my method of absence with which I simulated presence: opportunity created after a missed opportunity, proximity from a distance, dispensation, paying with art what I had owed to a person […]. The counterpart, confronted on paper, was canceled by this speech. He was only asked about the form, he could not join in the conversation. What was not suspended, but only confirmed, was the distance.”12
Writing without literary pretension has demonstrably helped many people to express their feelings, and thereby to regain their fragile balance. Nevertheless, literary writing goes beyond such a therapeutic function. For here it is no longer about the feelings, thoughts, or sensitivities, that want to be expressed. Moreover, it’s about the form of expression. The form of expression is the focus of art.
“[As a budding writer] one has made a decision from the beginning […]. To see the world as language. It is the decision to put a second, textual skin over one’s own skin.”13
With this decision to live for expression, writing becomes a form of existence: ‘being writing‘ (Ernst Jandl). Although, the literary claim does not exclude the relief from psychological conflicts. However, the claim itself can be experienced as a crisis when a blockage in the flow of writing arises.
“Ultimately, it is a matter of literally ‘expressing oneself’, of squeezing the words and sentences out of oneself in written form […]. But because in this process of producing texts, what is expressed or ‘pressed out’ becomes more and more distant from the ‘source’ of expression [the expressed feelings or emotions, or felt experiences] […], this progressive alienation must necessarily lead to repeated blockages. This corresponds to a completely normal psychological defense mechanism.”14
Even the most productive authors have experienced such unimaginative phases. However, especially novelists, whose identity is particularly fragile due to the constant slipping into the roles of others, suffer from this crisis of meaning. The author’s despair is comprehensible since the writer’s block is endangering not only the source of income but also the source of identity.
Source of Inspiration
“Often it is working within us, without anything tangible on the white page. Although I am also [a writer] in these dry times, I find it particularly difficult to admit to being a writer. […] [But] this latency period of dry drunkenness is necessary for the legitimacy of writing to emerge anew.“15
According to Jürgen vom Scheidt, writer’s block corresponds to resistance in psychotherapy. Since such resistance indicates repressed content, it should not be fought or drowned in alcohol. Rather, the author should ask him/herself what ignites this resistance, and what topics form the stones of offense. Perhaps s/he will find a new source of inspiration behind these blockages.
In contrast, the interpretive confrontation with literary fiction is always accessible. Additionally, reading usually doesn’t involve the danger of identity loss. Reading deepens our empathy and opens new perspectives. Thus, it even enriches our life experience. We are encouraged to deal with roles that we take on voluntarily or involuntarily in our lives.
“On the level of their reception, there is no necessary difference between art and the art of living. A therapy worthy of its name leads to the art of living, and art worthy of its name increases the ability to live. The work of art is a playing field on which to practice the ways of dealing with the fulfilling and the unfulfilling; which occupies the experience of boundaries with pleasure as much as it invites one to cross them. Yes, in ‘meager time’ the work of art can be the only food of its kind.“16
By reading literary works, the traumatized reader or aspiring writer learns to observe closely. Reading teaches us to pay attention to the sensual details of life, as well as to the finesses of expression:
“This tutoring is dialectical. Through reading, we become better observers, we apply what we have learned to live itself; conversely, we become more detailed readers of literature, which in turn makes us read life better and so on.“17
Literally working through
By sharpening the ability to observe, reading literary texts of other authors can help the writer to better analyze and express his/her own thoughts and emotions. Nevertheless, it is only by reading his/her own text that the mirror is held up to the writer. Thus s/he can find the thread to unravel the story of his/her own life and can pick it up where the thread has been torn off by the break of the traumatic event.
Strictly speaking, the insights that the writer gains with his/her own texts are mainly based on re-reading and interpreting what s/he her/himself has written. Thus, reading and reworking one’s own text corresponds to ‘working through‘ in conversational psychotherapy, since it implies the confrontation with the expressed emotions. From the position of an observer, the writer can recognize redundancies, contradictions, and thought patterns that prevent him or her from letting go of the past.
What if …?
Above all, reading literary fiction awakens the ‘Sense of possibility‘ that helps us to find new ways of thinking. The reader gets inspiration on how certain conflicts could be resolved differently than usual.
“Every moment of a surprising break in a plot testifies to a possible different story than the one in which the structural human being is imprisoned. Every irreconcilable detail is an incitement to rebel against oppressive rituals.“18
What often prevents the author’s immediate experience is precisely the inveterate objection: ‘But it could be different!‘ Or the question: ‘What if …?‘, which, according to Hermann Burger, is at the beginning of every literary exploration.
“Ideas enable us to invent new patterns of action that can be applied to new situations and to make plans for future actions. This is a source of creativity, which enables us to endlessly modify and combine ideas of actions and scenarios.“19
Indeed, both, lack as well as abundance of alternative options for action can lead to suffering in life. In one case, one has to endure the immediacy and supposed hopelessness. In the other case, one suffers from the distance to experience that arises from too much mediation. Too many considerations of how the experience could be ‘exploited’ for literary fiction, are between life and experience.
“A perfect artist is separated for all eternity from the ‘real’, the real thing; on the other hand, one understands how he can sometimes become tired of this eternal ‘unreality’ and falseness of his innermost existence to the point of despair – and that he then makes the attempt to reach into what is most forbidden to him, into the real thing. With what success? One will guess ...“20
Sense of possibilities
With his saying: ‘Reality is the best compliment to possibility‘, Johann Nestroy has taken the literary appreciation of the ‘Sense of possibility‘ to extremes. Even if it was not intended by the author, reality sometimes catches up with the most absurd literary fiction or even overtakes it. But this coincidence is secondary. It is merely a ‘compliment‘ to the author’s inventiveness. What counts is rather the literary counter-world to the dominant reality.
At home in language
Martin Heidegger called language the ‘dwelling‘ of man, and accordingly, thinkers and poets were the ‘guardians‘ of this dwelling. Humans are ‘at home‘ in language because it is their nature, to connect with the world in meaningful ways. By writing about what concerns us, the way we meaningfully exist in the world becomes evident to us. Writing and speaking both create existential meaning.
According to Heidegger, thinking occurs from the point of view of being. If it is not instrumentalized technically, ideologically, or scientifically, it endows existence with perspectival meaning.
Senselessness of violence
This endowment with meaning is perhaps the most important aspect of writing as a trauma-coping strategy. Since it is usually the senselessness of traumatic events or the fundamental loss of trust through violent experiences that shake our understanding of the world and weighs most heavily on us.
Above all, violence causes a change in the victim’s understanding of the world. It limits our power to creatively interpret and integrate what we have experienced. For it is precisely the nature of violence to be sudden. It is this lack of any kind of mediation, that the victim experiences as senselessness. This suddenness, therefore, has an even more fatal effect on the psyche of the traumatized person than the physical Impact. Writing can help to discover a singular meaning even in traumatic events or crises.
Acceptance of the pain
“To remember by writing is basically to descend into the depths of the well and relive all the things that caused pain in earlier years. It is an ancient experience that only the acceptance of the pain will clear the way for pleasant memories. […] Whoever writes ‘reproduces in the psychological field’ and on paper. He can thus become the interpreter of his own experiences. In the fortunate case […] he can even become the interpreter and giver of meaning to the whole of existence, including the existence of other people, indeed the whole of humanity.“21
Thus, through the re-evaluation of the experience, which probably takes place during the writing process, meaningless, traumatic events can be transformed into meaningful experiences.
A new meaning for existence
Viktor Frankl‘s ‘Logotherapy‘ is also based on the thesis that it is the suffering from existential senselessness that is most difficult for people to bear. The existential-analytical therapy he developed, is based on the anthropological premise, that the question of the meaning of existence is specifically human.
“In the context of logotherapy, ‘logos’ means meaning. In fact, human existence has always gone beyond itself, it has always pointed to a meaning. […] The human being is not only about pleasure or power, […] also not about self-realization, but rather about the fulfillment of meaning. In logotherapy, we speak of a ‘will to sense’.”22
Like Viktor Frankl, who survived the concentration camp, we can survive the most unbearable living conditions, if we succeed in holding on to an inner truth or a meaning of our existence.
Reasons for staying alive
“First of all, my life can become meaningful by doing something, by creating a work; but also by experiencing something – something or someone, and to experience someone in all his or her uniqueness means to love him or her. So it is either in the service of a cause or in the love of a person that we fulfill meaning – and thus also realize ourselves.“23
The need to bear witness, the adherence to the truth, as well as solidarity, love, hope, and religious faith can become meaningful life-savers in extreme situations, by giving us the mental strength to persevere.
Author: Eva Pudill
Estimated reading time: 18 minutes